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The Shockwave Rider
John Brunner (1934–1995)
“For all of humanity’s technical achievements, equally important are the voices that reflect upon the social changes and new norms that emerging technologies might bring. These tales can be particularly insightful when they envision an entire society that has yet to exist. One of the most famous of these is British author John Brunner’s 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider. Influenced heavily by Alvin Toffler’s 1970 nonfiction bestseller Future Shock, which concerns the negative impact of accelerated change and information overload on people, The Shockwave Rider describes in salient details a world in which data privacy and information management are abused by those in power and computer technology dominates individuals’ everyday lives.
The story revolves around Nick Haflinger, a gifted computer hacker who uses his phone-hacking skills to escape from a secret government program that trains highly intelligent people in a dystopian 21st-century America. The government and elitist organizations maintain control of society through a hyperconnected data and information net that keeps the general population ignorant of the world around them. Prominent themes in the book include using technology to change identities, moral decisions associated with data privacy and surveillance, and the mobility of self when the value of personal space and individuality is deemphasized.
The Shockwave Rider is also notable for coining the phrase worm as a computer program that replicates itself and propagates through computer systems. In the book, Haflinger employs different types of “tapeworms” and “counterworms” to alter, corrupt, and liberate data in the net to his advantage.
The Shockwave Rider is generally credited with being an early influence on the emergence of the 1980s sci-fi cyberpunk genre, in which plots focus on unanticipated near-future dystopias, societal conflict, and warped applications of technology. Well ahead of its time, it shows how computer technology is not just a tool to extend human cognition and improve productivity, but also an instrument that can enable the worst extremes of human nature.”
Cover of the 1976 Ballantine Books edition of The Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner.